How Chronic Stress is Killing Us All

How Chronic Stress is Killing Us All

What’s the difference between being chased by a bear and missing an office deadline?

I’d rather miss my office deadline. However, when it comes stress and how our bodies react to perceived threats, there’s not much difference.

The threat of being chewed by a bear, limb by limb (shudder), or chewed out by our boss tends to affect our bodies in similar ways. Oops.

Chronic Stress

Constant Pings of Modern Life

We live in a world of constant noise; e-mails, pings, buzzing and notifications. There’s continuous pressure to keep up, finish a task by never-ending deadlines, pay our bills, student loans, and healthcare costs. It’s a badge of honor to proclaim an 80 hour work week, where constant contact and 24 hour news cycles are the standards of our 21st century lives.

At this point, it’s impossible not to work overtime, we’re always plugged in and pushed farther and farther down a road of sleepless nights and endless work days.

And to make matters worse, humans are amazingly unique in our ability to worry and ruminate. Unlike other animal species, once a danger/stressor has passed, we tend to think about that danger over, and over, and over again, and then ask our friends and partners what they would have done in the same situation, and then ask our dogs if they think we’re still decent people, and if we’re still not satisfied we go to our bed and lose sleep over the stress of our finances, jobs or relationships. And if we’re even still unsatisfied, we drink a whole bottle of red wine while listening to Barbara Streisand all the while watching cat videos (full disclosure, I love cat videos).

We love to worry, it’s a national pastime. We are incredibly talented at fretting, stewing, and over-thinking, but this “ability” comes at a price.

Your Job Is Stressing You Out

Job stress statistics are grim. In fact, statistics show that job stress is far and away the number one cause of stress for Americans, and is steadily increasing year after year. According to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressors in their lives.

80% of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. 42% of people say their co-workers need help, which honestly is just another way of saying they don’t like their colleagues.

What’s worse, a whopping 29% of workers are so stressed, they’ve acted out in rage or have either yelled at co-workers or have personally struck someone. It’s getting personal, folks.

The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses over $300 billion dollars per year, based on absent and worked sick days due to psychological distress. And in 2011, stress was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees.

We’re Working Longer Hours Than Ever Before

A 1999 government report found that the number of work hours increased 8% in one generation to an average of 47 hours per week. Mind you, this was in 1999, before the internet and previously stated cat videos were part of our national fabric. I can only imagine this statistic being drastically higher today.

U.S. workers also put in more hours on the job than any other industrialized nation. We even outpaced the Japanese in 1995, working almost a month more than them per year. We work 260 hours more than the Brits and 499 hours more per year than the French.  What’s worse, we take less vacation, work longer days and retire later as well. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why can’t our national pastime be more about cheese and wine and less about overtime and deadlines?

Why Is This Important?

Why does this matter? So what if we work longer hours? We’re Americans dammit, we work hard and we play hard!

Instead of wearing this as a badge of honor, think of the chronic stress from our jobs and modern lives as a national health hazard. Stress is not something to brag about, but rather a health risk. For anyone living in the modern world, it’s time to start taking care of yourself.

What Is Stress?

Stress is the most underrated cause of disease, leading to almost every chronic disease out there. Just pick a chronic illness out of a hat and chances are, stress has played a significant role.

Your body has evolved to handle stress, such as running away from a bear, in order to protect you against threats and dangers. We occupy incredible functioning and sophisticated machines that are hard wired to keep us safe. When we encounter a perceived threat, our hypothalamus sets off an alarm in your body. This alarm prompts the release of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline through your adrenal glands.

These hormones are pertinent in keeping you alert and ready when you are running away from crazy bears who want your bag of Doritos. However, the same hormones also curb non-essential functions such as digestion, reproduction or growth processes. You don’t need to be digesting your Doritos while you’re running at the speed of light for your life.


What Stress Does To Your Health

Usually, once the threat has passed, your system returns to base levels and you can go back to eating your neon orange chips. However, in present day, these stressors never seem to go away, thus leading to various health problems, including: anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep disorders, weight gain, digestive issues, and cognitive impairment.

Research has pointed out that chronic stress and high levels of the hormone, cortisol, can create long-lasting changes in your brain leading to anxiety and mood disorders as well as learning difficulties, ADHD and more. In fact, parts of our brain have been known to SHRINK under extended periods of acute stress.

Want more depressing news? No? I’ll tell you anyway.

  • Lowered Immune System: A groundbreaking study in 2012 found that those who are experiencing chronic stress are cortisol resistant and were more likely to get sick. When you are under chronic stress, your immune system is unable to respond properly, leading to increased levels of inflammation which leads to disease.
  •  Weight Gain: Stress can lead to weight gain. So if you’re about to start a diet in the new year, hoping for a killer beach bod, add some meditation to the mix because stress stimulates a preference for foods that are full of sugar, starch and fat. But that’s not all, in a study published in Biological Psychiatry, women who had one or more stressful events during the previous 24 hours burned 104 less calories in the seven hours following a fast food binge than women who at a similar meal but were stress free.
  • Slower Healing: Too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, slows wound healing! In a study, older women who were caring for relatives with dementia took about 10 days longer to heal from a biopsy wound than a non-caregiver control.
  • Poor Sleep: Stress and sleep have always been closely related, leading into a cycle of sleepless horror. The less sleep people get the more it may impair memory and emotional control which may lead to an inability to handle stress which leads to less sleep which goes round and round in a circle forever.
  • Heart Disease: Researchers from University College London reported in the Lancet that employees with very demanding jobs and not much freedom to make decisions have a much higher risk of having a heart attack compared to other people their age whose jobs are less stressful. The chances of experiencing a heart attack for those with the more stressful jobs are increased by 23%. A different study from the Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass, found that women with very stressful jobs are 40% more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes and blocked arteries. 


What Do I Do Now?

Now that I’ve completely stressed you out, you might be thinking you’re completely screwed and don’t know what to do about all that stress. You’ll just have to keep tuned for my next post which will discuss the steps you can take to combat stress and live a healthier and happier life. Yes, healthier, happier, and stress free—and it’s not that hard.


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